What is forearm pain?
Forearm pain is categorised by symptoms such as; stiffness and difficulty lifting items. These symptoms can come from several different conditions, ranging from osteoarthritis to injury or other underlying medical conditions.
The forearm is the lower half of the arm, extending from the elbow to the wrist. The forearm is made up of two bones, the ulna and the radius bone, and there are many muscles, ligaments, and soft tissue that support the joints and allow the arm to move.
Read about what causes forearm pain, and what to do to help it.
What are the symptoms of forearm pain?
The symptoms of forearm pain depend on the cause of it. Common symptoms of forearm pain may include:
Dull aching pain
Shooting, radiating pain
Reduced range of motion in the elbow, wrist, or hands
Numbness or tingling
Poor grip strength
‘Clicking’ or ‘catching’ sensation
What causes forearm pain?
Forearm pain can be caused by a number of different conditions. This can range from degenerative joint disease to underlying conditions that affect the bones, muscles, or nerves.
Common causes of forearm pain include:
1. Muscle aches
Occasionally after a new activity or more activity than usual, the muscles in the forearm can become fatigued. This may cause mild symptoms in the forearm, but the discomfort will usually resolve within a short time period.
2. Overuse injuries
When the muscles in the forearm are overstressed, especially above normal use, it may cause a muscle strain (tendinopathy). This can be from everyday activities, or sports that require strong grip strength or twisting movements, such as tennis or golf. Tennis elbow and golfer's elbow are the two most common oversue injuries in the forearm. A muscle strain can take longer to settle than normal muscle aches, and may require a longer period of rest.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that affects the protective cartilage in the joints of the body. It is more common in people over 65 years old. If there is osteoarthritis in the neck, shoulder, elbow, or hands, it may cause pain or stiffness in the forearm.
4. Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS)
The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway in the wrist that various structures travel through. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a painful condition that can develop when this area tightens and compresses the nerves. Risk factors such as family history, diabetes, obesity and rheumatoid arthritis are linked to increased risk of CTS.
5. Ligament injury
There are many ligaments in and around the forearm that support the movement of the arm. In cases when the elbow, wrist, or hand are twisted or used awkwardly, it may cause a ligament sprain, resulting in forearm pain.
6. Referred pain
In some cases, if there is an issue in an upstream area of the arm, such as the shoulders or neck, pain can radiate or refer to the forearm. Poor posture, such as hunched shoulders or an awkward head position when working, can irritate the nerves in the neck or arms, and cause pain in the forearm. It is important to address the underlying cause when considering any treatment options.
7. Nerve problems
When nerves are compressed, or if they are affected by a medical condition such as diabetes, the pain can radiate into the forearm and cause pain. Often, a doctor is involved in the assessment and treatment of nerve problems.
8. Bone fractures
The bones in the forearm can be injured or may fracture. This usually only occurs as a result of trauma or injury, such as a ‘fall onto an outstretched hand’ (called a FOOSH injury) or a sporting accident.
When to see a doctor?
If the pain is severe or persistent, or was caused by an injury or accident (particularly if there was a ‘popping’ or ‘cracking’ sound), it is important to seek medical attention. Moreover, if there is any loss of control, strength, or sensation, or any other unexplained symptoms, a doctor should be consulted immediately.
Sometimes it is possible to link the forearm pain to a recent activity. Sometimes though, the exact underlying cause of the symptoms is not clear. A doctor can assess and diagnose the origin of the pain. It is important to get the correct diagnosis before any treatment is considered, otherwise the injury may get worse.
How is forearm pain treated?
The treatment of forearm pain depends on the cause and severity of the symptoms.
If the pain is mild, and other more serious underlying conditions have been ruled out, there are some basic strategies that can help settle forearm discomfort. However, if there are any concerns about the cause or symptoms, it is important to consult a doctor.
Rest: Resting the arm can help reduce the work the arm has to do, and therefore helps settle any symptoms.
Ice therapy: When used appropriately, applying an ice pack to the area can help reduce pain and swelling.
Pain relief: Taking over-the-counter medication can help reduce any symptoms and improve function. If there are any concerns about medications, speak to a doctor.
Strengthening or stretching exercises can help rehabilitate the forearm and restore movement. A physiotherapist can address the cause of the symptoms and prescribe specific exercises to help resolve them. They may also recommend other treatments such as taping, postural correction, dry needling, or other movements to help restore function.
Common exercises from a physiotherapy may include:
Mobility exercises - Gentle range of motion exercises for the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand can help start to restore movement in the arm.
Stretching exercises - Various stretches, particularly at the wrist and elbow, can help reduce any tension from the forearm pain.
Resistance exercises - After a period of time if the recovery is going well, the physiotherapist may also introduce weights to progress the rehabilitation.
Sometimes, the non-invasive conservative (non-surgical) treatments may be ineffective. A doctor may recommend some other options to help with the symptoms.
Depending on the cause of the pain, a doctor may recommend:
Corticosteroid injection - This can decrease pain in the forearm by reducing inflammation in the muscles and tissue.
Pain relief - Prescription medications may be able to target the pain more effectively.
Bracing aids - On some occasions, a splint or bandage may be prescribed to limit movement in the affected area whilst the injury is healing.
Surgery - If conservative treatments have not been successful, a doctor may recommend a review with a surgeon to discuss surgical options. This may include a tendon release or carpal tunnel release. Surgery is usually reserved as a last option, except in the case of a severe or acute injury.
What to consider about forearm pain
Forearm pain can often resolve by itself, without the need for surgery. Rest and other treatments can be beneficial to help resolve any symptoms. However, in the case that there is severe or persistent pain, or if the symptoms are progressively worsening, it is important to see a doctor.